Front Line Defenders Dublin Platform 2022
Address by the
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Friday, 28 October 2022
Thank you very much Verónica. Good morning everyone. It is a great pleasure to be with you today and to be together in Dublin Castle once again. It is wonderful to see so many of you here and to have the opportunity to celebrate your courage, strength and achievements. You each have a story, but it is also a shared story. It is a collective story of concerted effort to help your communities and your countries; of imagining the world as it should be.
As I was listening to the testimonies earlier, I was thinking about the use of arbitrary arrests. In the work that I do and in the testimonies that I hear from human rights defenders in different parts of the world, there are moments when I think: well yes, I see why arrests are taking place, I see why repression is taking place. I don’t of course agree with it. But what I cannot and have never been able to fully understand – not as the EU Special Representative for Human Rights or as a political figure, but as a human being – the mistreatment, the brutality and the torture to which detainees are so often subjected. It is a place below the level of normal human decency. It has no place, in the 21st century.
Whether you are a lawyer, journalist, environmental activist, trade union leader, election observer, community worker or teacher, if you are working to defend your rights or the rights of others, you are a human rights defender. Of course, the list is not limited to those I have just mentioned. The range of work is diverse and richly varied across all of society. Change in our world does not always happen because some leader or political figure decides that it should happen; that is important indeed. But in my experience change happens because enough people like you come together to force the system to change.
It is often said that human rights are in the DNA of the European Union. That is because the EU’s purpose was and is to preserve peace. And as we have seen too many times around the world, conflict often follows from the denial of rights. That is why the principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights are in the EU treaties, that is why they are a condition for membership and that is why they are central to our foreign and security policy.
Unfortunately, throughout the world these days, there are some who seek to persuade us that protecting human rights and their universality is some kind of a Western idea, some kind of new form of imperialism or neo-colonialism. And in place of that universal vision of human rights, they want to put in place a view of the world that says that economic development should come first, security should come first, and a commodification of people is advanced. It ultimately strips away our humanity and really it turns human rights principles on its edge, awarding the rights to the States and the obligations to individuals. This is a noxious concept.
Human rights are not about imposing a vision of the world on someone else. They are the essence of our humanity. To put it plainly, human rights belong to everyone, everywhere; and they are about doing the right thing. Dignity, freedom, democracy, justice, equality, peace, inclusion, the rule of law and respect for others; these are what we mean when we talk about human rights. And human rights do not just protect us; they also connect us.
Before the pandemic broke out, we were already seeing what I call a recession in human rights around the world. Increasing poverty, inequality, repression, violence against human rights defenders were compounded by the inability to document and to fact check on the ground during lockdowns. Isolation fuelled insecurity and surveillance intensified. Restrictive measures, that were necessary at first from a health perspective, have been maintained in some countries, as a means of repression. The more I see repression around the world, the more I believe this is a sign of weakness rather than strength. Repression is the weapon of last resort for autocratic regimes in the face of moral courage.
The start of the recession in human rights is coupled with an increasing polarised and volatile global environment. We have seen a cascade of crises over the past couple of years. In Afghanistan, women and girls now inhabit a world from the dark ages and society is being smothered. In Tigray in Ethiopia, the civilian population has paid a horrific price due to the dramatic escalation of violence and are now in one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. In Belarus, over 1,300 people are in prison for daring to express an opinion that differs to that of the brutally repressive Lukashenko regime. In Myanmar, the democratically elected leader is in prison after a military coup and people are being executed for their political opinions.
In Ukraine, the senseless unprovoked aggression by Russia has caused enormous suffering with disturbing scenes, that we have not since newsreels from the 1930s and 40s, reaching us in real time. And right now in Iran, the younger generation, especially women, are fighting for freedom in nation-wide protests, following the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, for not wearing a headscarf. I know that you all face challenges of different scales and complexities in your own countries. These are just a few of too many crises to highlight and of course, they are happening alongside long standing crises, such as in Syria and in Palestine.
It is perhaps easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of atrocities and violations that we are witnessing. At the same time, it is also dangerously possible to become desensitised to what we are seeing. We are more connected than ever before and in some ways, the immediacy of information and repeated images of suffering can have the effect of diminishing the magnitude of what we are facing and dim our response.
It is critical that we do not become desensitised, but that we become even more determined to define the future of human rights. I can assure you that the European Union is determined to play its part. Our policy on human rights is outlined in an EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which was agreed unanimously by all of our 27 member states. It recognises and responds to the current global environment. A cornerstone of that Plan is support to human rights defenders around the world.
We do that in a number of ways. First of all, we established EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders as far back as 2004 to provide a practical guide to supporting human rights defenders on the ground. This can take many forms, depending on the context and situation – for example, prison visits, observation of trials, regular contact, and advocacy campaigns.
Every day, the 140 EU Delegations that we have in countries around the world, together with the embassies of our 27 Member States, are working with human rights defenders and working with civil society organisations; providing and communicating EU support. EU focal points on human rights and EU human rights defenders liaison officers are in place in the EU delegations to ensure this support is consistent.
We also provide practical assistance through ‘protectdefenders.eu’ and through the provision of emergency grants. This has amounted to €35 million in the past 7 years and we have provided assistance to 55,000 human rights defenders in different parts of the world. There is an upcoming EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism that will be managed by protectdefenders.eu from next month. It will also benefit from increased EU funding of about 30%. That is about €30 million over 4 and half years, to reinforce support to human rights defenders over that period.
The support that we provide to human rights defenders, of course, is not just of financial and practical support. We also provide political support through the engagement that we have with different countries, through our Human Rights Dialogues with over 60 countries and regional organisations, and through our political engagements. Before every Human Rights Dialogue, we have a formal engagement with civil society organisations.
We back that up political engagement by the work that I do, for example, when I visit countries and meet with government and political leaders. When I visit countries, I also always meet with civil society organisations and where possible, I meet directly with human rights defenders.
I have just returned from Indonesia, where we had a Human Rights Dialogue with the ASEAN countries and where I had engagement with Indonesia. I also had the opportunity of having bilateral meeting with representatives of a number of countries in the region, including the Philippines, with whom I raised the case of Nobel [Peace Prize] laureate Maria Ressa, who is facing imminent arrest and prison.
We reinforce political support through the work that we do at the United Nations on many issues relating to the protection of defenders. We also engage closely with defenders in the United Nations, both in Geneva and New York, and we are strongly committed to ensuring that UN itself is a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society. No one should suffer from reprisals as a result of cooperating with the UN. This morning, I want to pay tribute in particular to the tireless work of Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, with whom I have the privilege of working very closely.
Our multilateral work is strengthened by the work we do on trade, as we have human rights clauses in every EU trade agreement. The schemes and trade preferences, known as GSP, that we have allow for duty free access to European markets on the conditions that human rights standards are maintained in the countries concerned. The monitoring in those trade agreements includes exchanges of information, dialogue and visits, and it involves various stakeholders, including civil society. Trade preferences can be removed if beneficiary countries fail to respect human rights and labour rights. We have already done this, for example, in 2020 in the case of Cambodia.
Next year, it is 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights defenders are guardians of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And as we look forward to celebrating that 75th anniversary, we will also celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This will be an important moment to reflect on where we are. In the meantime, we need to redouble our efforts and work together even more closely; to do more and to do it better.
We do indeed, I think, need to look in the current environment at how we’re working on the protection of human rights defenders. The world in many ways is a different place, even in the three years since we last met at this platform. The level of repression has increased, the number of human rights crises in the world has increased, the work of human rights defenders has changed and is constantly changing. The means of harassing and the tools that are used for the harassment of human rights defenders has changed. We also have to change the way in which we are addressing these challenges.
I want to say that I think that this platform, bringing together individual human rights defenders from around the world, is an important platform where we learn what we can do better and what we need to do, and where the priorities and urgencies are. I will certainly be taking away from this platform the outcomes of the discussions that you were having over the past three days. [I will also be] discussing those with my colleagues in Brussels who are responsible for the protection of human rights defenders, whether that is within the European External Action Service or from the other parts of the Commission, to see what we can do better to respond to your needs on the ground.
I want to pay particular tribute to Front Line for the incredible work you have been doing (and your colleagues and predecessors) since 2001 to improve the security and protection of human rights defenders around the world. You have literally been the difference between life and death in some cases. I want to thank you also for organising this wonderful event again this year. I know that the discussions you have had over the last couple of day have been fruitful.
There is no easy road to freedom, peace and justice. We know it cannot be done alone, but through unity of purpose, by working every day to do the right thing and by imagining the world as it should be.
Thank you all for working so tirelessly to protect human rights, and being a force for positive change in the lives of so many people around the world.
I look forward to hearing your questions and recommendations.